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House of Commons

Tuesday 21 April 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Band D Council Tax

1. John Howell (Henley) (Con): By how much band D council tax has increased in Henley in (a) absolute and (b) percentage terms since 1997-98. [269443]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): Before I respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I would like to take the opportunity to apologise to the House for inadvertently disclosing some information this morning, just a few minutes before it was contained in a written ministerial statement to the House. I have apologised to the Prime Minister. I take this matter very seriously indeed, and I would therefore like to apologise to the House.

The average band D council tax, including parish precepts, in south Oxfordshire—Henley—has increased by £830, or 129 per cent., since 1997-98. In England as a whole, the increases in the same period are £726 and 106 per cent.

John Howell: Given the higher rate of increase in my constituency compared with the position nationally, will the Secretary of Secretary now apologise for the pressure that she has put on council tax by the below-inflation grant settlements given to my district and county councils, by the unfunded additional burdens that she has put on to them, and by the pressure on the funding of core services through the way she is dealing with ring-fenced grants?

Hazel Blears: I have made one apology today, Mr. Speaker, and I certainly do not propose to make another in the terms that the hon. Gentleman has requested. I am quite astounded by his question in many ways. I am sure that he will know that under this Government there has been a 39 per cent. real-terms increase in grants to local government, whereas under his party’s Government there was a 7 per cent. real-terms cut in the last four years. He knows that in this current period there is almost an extra £9 billion for local authorities across this country to continue to provide support and help to their communities.

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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State mentioned the figures for England—an approximate doubling that is an average of 6 per cent. over the 12-year period. Is it not the case that during the period before we came into office, when council tax was still operating in the last days of the Conservative Government, the average annual increase was very much the same, at 6 per cent.? Does she think that perhaps Conservatives protest too much, or is it down to the fact that innumeracy is a prerequisite of being selected by a Conservative association?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes some very pertinent points about the funding of local government. Local authorities have to be aware of the costs of council tax to their residents, absolutely rightly, but they also provide a whole range of really important services, whether in adult social care, education, or recycling and the environment. This Government have enabled local authorities to continue to provide those services. I have to say, Mr. Speaker, that it is still the case that in local authority terms, Labour costs you £204 less than Tory councils.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am sure that the whole house will welcome the right hon. Lady’s initial remarks. While she is in the vein of apology, will she continue that by apologising for her persistent habit of quoting figures and comparisons in terms of average council tax, given that that methodology has been dismissed by the Library as inappropriate—the different mix of dwelling values means there cannot be a like comparison—and has been described by the respected academic, Professor Tony Travers, as “not respectable”? Will the Minister resort to like-to-like comparisons of band D, which show that Conservative councils invariably cost less?

Hazel Blears: What people are really bothered about is what they pay. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that in relation to band D council tax, Labour increases are 2.8 per cent., Tory increases are 3.3 per cent., and Liberal Democrat increases are 3.2 per cent. Labour certainly does cost people less.

Gypsy Caravans

2. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): What estimate she has made of the number of Gypsy caravans which are illegally parked on (a) land owned by caravan owners and (b) other land. [269444]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): The count of Gypsy and Traveller caravans in England undertaken in July 2008 showed that there were 2,240 caravans on land owned by Gypsies without planning permission and 1,750 caravans on land not owned by Gypsies. This demonstrates the need to provide more authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers.

Mr. Gray: Last Saturday, a large group of Travellers moved on to a site at Hullavington in my constituency, which they own but for which they have no planning permission, and immediately lodged an application for retrospective planning permission. If the recent experience at Minety, also in my constituency, is anything to go by,
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they will be allowed to stay on that site, either permanently or at least temporarily, for the very reason that they are Gypsies. How can that be justified alongside the experience of my constituent, Miss Tina Johnston, in neighbouring Box, who is not a Gypsy but lives in a caravan on her farm? She has recently been thrown off the farm because she does not have planning permission; meanwhile, down the road, the Gypsies are being allowed to stay on the site because they are Gypsies. Surely there should be one law for Gypsies and for settled people.

Mr. Wright: On there being one law for Gypsies and Travellers and one law for the settled community, I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There is one law for this country, and it is applied equally to Gypsies and Travellers and to the settled community. On the specific example that he gives, he will realise that, because of the Secretary of State’s role in the planning process, I cannot possibly comment. However, I can say in general terms that retrospective planning applications are a respected part of our planning process that is used for Gypsies and Travellers and for the settled community.

I recommend that people, whether they are Gypsies, Travellers or members of the settled community, work closely with their local authorities. There is not an automatic assumption that when there is development on land, planning permission will be granted. A comprehensive and co-ordinated accommodation needs assessment for Gypsies and Travellers will provide local authorities with much greater tools.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): The recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission showed that reasonable progress had been made on providing enough authorised Gypsy and Traveller sites, but that the Government will not reach their targets by 2011 unless a greater effort is made. What does my hon. Friend suggest can be done to ensure that we reach those targets and thus prevent the problem of illegal sites?

Mr. Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for the question and pay tribute to her fantastic work in her role as chair of the all-party group on the matter. Good progress has been made, as she suggests, but it is very important that we have a degree of political consensus. It is in no one’s interests for Gypsies and Travellers to be set against the settled community. We need a comprehensive range of accommodation needs assessments in place to ensure that authorised sites are brought forward; otherwise, we will have community tensions and increased enforcement costs for local authorities and taxpayers. That is in no one’s interests, so I hope that Members in all parts of the House—and, crucially, local authorities—can work together to ensure that we bring forward those much-needed accommodation assessments.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): May I put it to the Minister that his claims that we have a planning system that treats everyone equally are at odds with the recent experience of my constituents in Prince’s Risborough? Over the Easter weekend, Travellers moved on to land that they own that is both green belt and part of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. They are now using retrospective planning applications to try to defeat efforts by the district council to enforce stop
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orders and see the land restored. It is this business whereby people who pre-empt the planning system seem to gain an advantage that arouses such indignation and resentment from people who play by the rules.

Mr. Wright: I reiterate many of the comments that I made to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). Retrospective planning applications are a fundamental part of our planning process and apply equally—I stress the word “equally”—to Gypsies and Travellers and to members of the settled community. [Interruption.] As with the hon. Gentleman’s point, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) knows that I cannot comment on specific matters, but he mentions green belt, and there is an automatic presumption against inappropriate development on green belt land. Gypsies and Travellers— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It must not be the case that when an hon. Member asks a question, he keeps interrupting the Minister. That is just not right.

Mr. Wright: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. There is an automatic presumption against inappropriate development of green belt land. Gypsy and Traveller accommodation sites are classed firmly as inappropriate development in the planning guidance, and I imagine that the hon. Gentleman’s local planning authority will take that into account.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that where local authorities provide good facilities for Travellers, including an adequate number of pitches, by and large Travellers will not go on illegal sites? Also, the local authority will gain from them by charging a decent rent.

Mr. Wright: As ever, my hon. Friend makes incredibly sensible points. She is absolutely right. The provision of more authorised sites reduces tension and enforcement costs and ensures that we have good community relations between Gypsy and Traveller communities and settled communities. The identification and provision of more authorised sites is the way to go to ensure that we can deal with this problem.

Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): The Minister mentioned in an earlier answer the necessity for a qualitative needs assessment of Gypsies and Travellers. Does he agree that any assessment should take into account both health care and education and employment needs, and that any sensible assessment would conclude that Gypsy and Traveller sites need to be near dentists, doctors, hospitals, schools and employment? They should be near to where those facilities are available—not in rural villages where there is no public transport and no such services, miles from anywhere.

Mr. Wright: I agree with the hon. Lady—she is right about access to health care and other public services. There are huge disparities and inequalities between Gypsies’ and Travellers’ life expectancy and educational attainment, and those of the settled community. It is the Government’s job to try to help address that. Provision of sites close to health facilities such as dentists’ and doctors’ surgeries, and to good schools, is vital, but
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there are of course good schools, dentists and doctors in rural areas, too. Local areas and authorities are best placed to assess that.

Homeowner Mortgage Support Scheme

3. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What progress has been made on the introduction of the homeowner mortgage support scheme. [269445]

The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): I am pleased to announce that homeowner mortgage support is now available to help home owners remain in their home if they fall on difficult times. It will enable eligible borrowers to reduce their monthly mortgage interest payments to affordable levels for up to two years to help them get back on track with their finances if they suffer a temporary loss of income. The scheme is part of the Government’s comprehensive offer of real help for home owners who are struggling to keep up with their mortgage payments.

Mr. Mackay: Since the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the homeowner mortgage support scheme in December, more than 25,000 homes have been repossessed. Why has action taken so long? Will the Minister apologise to all those families who lost their homes unnecessarily, due to the Government’s incompetence?

Margaret Beckett: As the right hon. Gentleman might have observed if he paid attention to the House’s agenda, we had to change the law to allow us to continue with the scheme, and then we had to put in place the detailed arrangements that underpin it.

As for apologising, I am, of course, sorry as always when people lose their homes, but the right hon. Gentleman should know that the scheme is not the only thing that the Government have done. The court protocol has been in place for some time; the legal desk advice that we have given— [Interruption.] It is no good the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head—35,000 families dealt with the legal desks last year. There is also the extra support for the Department for Work and Pensions’ enhanced mortgage interest scheme. The Government have done a whole string of things, but we wish to do more—and we are doing more.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): I am concerned about families whose evictions are not likely to be averted by the scheme as it stands. Will the Minister consider a scheme whereby local authorities are empowered to take over as the mortgage provider, so that a problem of unemployment is not compounded by the tragedy of being made homeless at the same time?

Margaret Beckett: We are always willing to examine any ideas and proposals, but my hon. Friend may be mistaken in thinking that there are people whom the scheme would not help, and who therefore need to rely on local authorities. In our proposals, the combination of lenders directly involved in the Government scheme—those who will implement it in a few days, when they have completed their administrative arrangements—and those who provide comparable help through their own sets of proposals, means that about 80 per cent. of lenders will take action along those lines.

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Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): The launch of the homeowner mortgage support scheme today is welcome, albeit belated news. What is the Minister doing to work with the Treasury to ensure that the Financial Services Authority requires lenders to publish information about how they will treat borrowers if they fall into arrears? Rather than simply issuing guidance to the court, does not the law need to be tightened so that the pre-action protocol can be enforced? Is that not the best way in which to ensure that repossession is the last resort?

Margaret Beckett: We are prepared to consider whether there is a greater need, but our understanding is that the pre-action protocol is working quite well, and that applications for a court order have been turned down in several cases. The FSA and the financial services ombudsman will monitor the scheme’s operation and keep a close eye on its effectiveness. That is one reason for hoping that it will be effective in helping many thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of families to stay in their homes.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I welcome the announcement that my right hon. Friend has made. Can she say how home owners will be able to access one-stop-shop advice about the different schemes that the Government are bringing forward to support home owners who face difficulties at the present time?

Margaret Beckett: A number of advice agencies are working with us, including Shelter, Citizens Advice, the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, National Debtline and Payplan. All are geared up to answer questions and to take people not only through the current scheme, but through the range of other help that the Government have already made available. I entirely share my hon. Friend’s wish to see that people are made aware of what can be done. The information is also now available on various websites.

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): The Prime Minister upstaged his own Queen’s Speech back on 3 December, announcing the mortgage support scheme by saying:

Yet five months later, that headline-grabber has still not helped a single family out there, so I repeat the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). Will the Housing Minister use this Question Time to apologise to some of the 28,700 families whose homes have been repossessed since then, particularly given that the Prime Minister suggested at the time that the Government’s scheme would cover 70 per cent. of the mortgage market, whereas an analysis of this morning’s statement suggests that the scheme—the part that the Government have directly negotiated—will cover just 25 per cent. of the mortgage market? Is not the Minister once again in danger of raising expectations, only for them to be dashed when homes are repossessed?

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